The only team that wins in Clermont is Clermont. That’s one of those local customs that the HSBC “The World’s Local Bank” series of ads never got around to: nobody ever tells you, but you’ll notice if you visit there that nobody but Clermont wins in the Stade Marcel Michelin.
In that light, Ulster’s bonus-point loss to the Monsters of the Massif Central is as good a result as they could have hoped for. Given that it was enough to qualify them for the quarter-final, the Mole can justify parking the result and concentrating on the performance. A great performance and no result whatsoever would have been a disaster, given how well the Ravenhill men have played this season in Europe, but a less than perfect result coupled with a more than satisfactory performance gives some evidence for optimism.
This was a far more gritty, aggressive and competitive performance than the away game in Leicester back in November. The Ulstermen let themselves down a little that evening, having to leave Welford Road without even the solace of a losing bonus point. Of course, all sorts of hell-fire and brimstone Old Testament vengeance was inflicted on the midlanders when they arrived at Ravenhill. While that was arguably Ulster’s best European performance of the last decade, it did tie in with the general consensus; Ulster have long carried the tag of tough opposition on home soil but vulnerable away from Belfast. Despite the end result, the outing against Clermont will have gone a long way to scribble that out, and while in the short term it was neither as complete a display nor as significant a victory as the whomping of Leicester, it may turn out to be something of a turning point for the
province in terms of their attitude to tough away games.
With that said, they again cede home advantage in the quarter-final. And, again, it’s to a side who have made a fortress of their home ground.
Munster have arguably been more convincing on the road than at home in this season’s campaign [they’ve registered nine tries in three away matches, and five in their three at Thomond Park], but it’s a hell of a place to go looking for a win. With a fierce partisan crowd huffing and roaring one minute and then eerily silent the next, the dynamics
are as extreme as any rugby stadium in the northern hemisphere. Stade Marcel Michelin may edge it on a whistle-to-whistle decibel count, but when it comes to saying the loud part/loud and the quiet part/quiet, Thomond has them all beaten.
It has a huge impact on the ref: marginal forward passes by the opposition are roared to whistle-stop and missable knock-ons are given, while visiting high tacklers sound like they’re in for a lynching.
There’s no doubt for The Mole that the crowd influenced ‘Blind’ Dave Pearson at the weekend and that Ulster were somewhat hometowned. As Joe Schmidt alluded to in the IT on Saturday, teams come to Clermont expecting to lose and don’t always prepare adequately. Ulster came to win and it made life uncomfortable for Clermont.
Ulster played Biarritz at a similar stage last year and got torn apart in the late scrums as Tom Court moved across to tight head and Slyvan Marconnet did a job on him. This year, Court stayed at loosehead and did a good job while John Afoa kept the scrum steady. Earlier in the day, Timoci Nagusa had loitered around the wing for Montpellier at the RDS as a peripheral figure. The Fijian can score some sparkling tries but over the course of the season, Ulster have a better deal allocating their sterling to a top class tight head.
Unfortunately, this year it was the lineout that proved their downfall in the last ten minutes, rahter than the scrum. Ulster kept the pressure on Clermont and had territory but threw in some crooked balls, turning over the ball cheaply without pressurising Clermont. Johan Muller’s vehement protests were penalised and Clermont extended their run. Ulster need better from their senior players: Best’s wayward throwing and Muller’s indiscipline were both avoidable. The Thomond crowd will lap that up.
Clermont have a cutting edge but aren’t as fearsome as in past seasons when Super Mario led their pack, bulwarked by Scelzo and Domingo. They now have an away quarter final and will play a semi at “home”, but not the Stade Marcel Michelin should they win.
Ulster travel to Thomond, which was the worst possible draw for Munster. Ulster will fear Thomond less than any of the other quarter finalists, it holds no mystical qualities for them. Their away support will take their full allocation and make noise. And, at the heart of it all, Ulster and Munster don’t see eye to eye. Munster v Leinster is a rivalry that has dominated Irish rugby for the last decade but Munster v Ulster is a clash of cultures. They don’t like each other and this is the pick of the quarters.